Boys Town: Clarifying Decision-Making Roles Between Headquarters and Sites

J"n Huggett and Kirk Kramer
Boys Town was founded in 1917 by Father Flanagan, who wanted to provide a better home and future for boys that had been orphaned, abandoned, or abused. Famous for saying, “There is no such thing as a bad boy,” Flanagan campaigned against eugenics and set up residential homes, the first located in Omaha, Nebraska. The 1938 movie “Boys Town” told the story to the world. It was a history to be proud of. Over the years, the nonprofit continued to flourish, opening sites that offered a variety of programs in fourteen states plus the District of Columbia. And by 2006, Boys Town was a $200 million organization with a broad range of offerings. It was helping more than 51,000 youth annually through direct services including health care and family focused programs designed to enable children to continue living at home, or to return to their homes. It was assisting another 1.5 million children through its national hotline and outreach and training programs. It was also operating a research hospital. Boys Town also had a new CEO, Fr. Steven Boes. Eager to take the nonprofit’s impact to a whole new level, Fr. Boes formed a planning team made up of key managers to conduct a “root and branch” strategic review of the entire organization. The process, completed between January and June of 2007, included assessing the trends in child welfare nationwide and in key states, interviewing site leaders and staff at Boys Town sites across the country, performing a detailed analysis of the organization and its economics and benchmarking against select peers. Considered against the strengths and weaknesses of the U.S. child welfare system and the services offered by other providers, the review’s findings showed how Boys Town could shore up some of the weaknesses of the system while serving more children and families. By linking its broad array of offerings and adding more in-home support where the need was greatest, Boys Town could improve service continuity and leverage available dollars to double the number of youth it served. The findings also revealed opportunities for Boys Town to increase its health care program outreach and improve its ability to influence policies affecting child welfare both at the state and national levels. “Sites had been telling us for years that the business of child care was changing,” Fr. Boes explained, “but we had not listened as well as we could have.” The review ensured that site directors’ voices were heard; the new, five-year strategic plan that emerged from the process recognized those voices. (The appendix summarizes the rationale behind Boys Town’s strategic plan.) Managers and staff across the organization supported the new plan. “Our site directors saw their input into the plan,” Fr. Boes said. “They were a part of the decision; the strategy was not developed in a smoke-filled back room.” But there was also widespread recognition that in order for implementation to be successful, Boys Town needed to be faster on its feet, particularly with regard to decision making that affected youth care services. Boys Town’s traditional, centralized approach to decision making had served the organization well in the past, but it had become increasingly slow and cumbersome. While centralized decision making had not compromised service quality, it did compromise the goal to serve more children and economic decisions supportive of that goal. Implementing the new strategy successfully would require more speed, more decisiveness, and less caution. More decisions needed to be made closer to the source of the action and the outcome.
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